Meanwhile in Australia

We’re over two weeks into our election campaign and have the forever-wait ahead of us. Three weeks is our forever-wait.

I’m not going to explain the full Australian political system. I live with it. The bus that takes me to the city loops around Parliament House and I’ve been to events in meeting rooms and offices and (just the once) in the President of the Senate’s private garden and even attended a Chanukah celebration in a hallway. The Parliament House episode that I sneakily snuck into The Wizardry of Jewish Women is based on a real event within the building and a senior politician actually sat on that black stone table (leaving me wanting to make Aslan jokes) in a hallway and… you can read it if you want to know a smidgeon about the interior.

The exterior looks much smaller than it really is. Our new Parliament House is a hill, dug out and rebuilt.

Our old Parliament House is now the Museum of Australian Democracy. They call themselves MoAD, but my left eye skips over the ‘o’, which demonstrates that my left eye doesn’t respect democracy. The old building will be a hundred in a few years, which shows how long Canberra has been the place of government. Before that it was Melbourne and before Melbourne it was London via Sydney.

The dates are important. We became independent in 1901 and women could vote from 1902. Before then, Britain’s parliamentary system, honed by a few hundred years of interesting experiment, was significantly modified by the US. Canada said “We can do better than this,” and changed it to prove their point when they became independent. We looked at Canada and said “Really,” and then New Zealand trumped us all.

Australia is a Commonwealth, with State and Territory and Federal government. States also have local government. Our lower house is the House of Representatives, where most of the everyday power lies. The upper house is the Senate which works nicely most of the time to make the lower house behave but has limited capacity to initiate new things. Our Prime Minister is the leader of the ruling party in the House of Representatives and is not the actual head of state. The Governor-General represents the monarch, who is, in fact, our head of state.

We are ruled by Queen Elizabeth currently. She doesn’t do the everyday ruling – that’s done by the Prime Minister. The Queen has the legal capacity to sack the Prime Minister, of course, but Queen Elizabeth is far more restrained in handling Australia than Trump is in handling America. This is one of the reasons the Republican movement hasn’t succeeded in getting us a president yet.

Anyhow, the ruling party does the everyday ruling and the Governor-General mostly signs off for the monarch and this all becomes a lot of fun when there’s a crisis. We’re very into self-management and have thus far avoided many crises. We didn’t go to war with the UK to gain independence, either – it was forced upon us. We weren’t that happy about becoming independent and we still have very close relations with the UK. The UK has close relations with Australian soapies, which is an entirely different subject.

So, that’s your pocket history. The rest of this post will be about this election.

This election is a bit of an odd one, because we had a double dissolution last time. The entirety of both houses was dissolved in 2016. This means that half the Senate has to be elected after only half a term while the other half thumbs their noses at the ones who have to stand again, because they don’t need to budge until next election. The House of Representatives members have three year terms.

We don’t have fixed dates for elections. There’s a range of dates when they can take place to make terms that are more or less three years. Technically, the current government had until 2 July for an election but there are a lot of dates that can’t be used. We knew months ago that the election was going to be in March or May.

Even though many Saturdays are not possible for an election, the range of dates gives the party in power a huge electoral advantage. If they find the right date, they can control the discourse. The current government did this by bringing the Budget forward a month and then using it as pre-election advertising they didn’t have to pay for. This might have been more effective if it hadn’t been done so obviously: they called the election and stopped the talk about the Budget just before one of their most controversial Budget measures (the approval of the Adani mine) was analysed in Senate Estimates.

The cycle for this election then, is already notable for it being a postponed election (it’s almost as late as it can be for the House of Representatives) with a Budget that took the place of policy announcements. That’s only a fraction of what has happened so far. While every election is unique, this one is shaping up to be bizarre.

Now we’re in caretaker mode. Caretaker mode comes into effect the moment an election is declared.

I was in the public service (I was a policy officer, way back then) during caretaker mode once or twice and it’s an odd time. Public servants are given clear and occasionally dire warnings about what they can and can’t do. It’s complicated and I won’t go into it here. Like everything else in these posts, if you’re interested, tell me and I’ll return to it another time.

Caretaker mode is supposed to neutralise the public service so that the sitting government can’t take advantage of it. This is sometimes more said than done, but the fact that we’re mostly stringent about caretaker mode is probably one of the reasons why the Treasurer presented his budget before the election was called.

I keep making a joke about the small amount of time between when an election is called and when it takes place. The truth is that six weeks is standard.

What percentage of potential Australian voters actually vote? The vast majority of those enrolled. The majority of eligible voters are enrolled (the number I’ve seen most often is 96%), though currently the number is down on previous years.

We have compulsory voting, which means that 90% of enrolled voters actually vote and the rest have to argue against being fined. Voting is something almost everyone does here or expects to do. There’s a conversation I tend to have with eighteen year olds. We talk about them now being able to drink and vote and they tell me what their first official drinking experience was and who they plan to vote for. Not all eighteen year olds want to talk about these things with random adults, but a lot of them want to explain (often fervently) how their vote matters. Compulsory here doesn’t have the level of discomfort so many non-Australians assume – it’s simply part of our civic duty.

The trouble with compulsory voting is that when idiots stand for election and we vote them in it really does reflect something about our society. Mostly. The way the votes for the Senate are counted means that some people can scrape in with little support and this is how the notorious Fraser Anning became a senator. Our counting system means that a certain number of independents and people from rag-tail parties have a chance of getting in, even without wide public support.

We use preferential voting. It operates quite simply for the House of Representatives: everyone numbers every single box on their ballot and preferences are counted if one person doesn’t make it through in the first round. For the Senate, you can vote above the line (for a whole party) or below the line, in which case you number many boxes. I number them all, mostly because I love finding the worst ratbag and giving them the highest number. This backfired the year we had a metre-long ballot paper. It took me quite a while to fill in all the boxes.

We don’t do write-in candidates and we try to avoid tasteful scribbles on ballots. We’re only just now experimenting with electronic voting and the general opinion is that we don’t trust it. Those few people who really hate the whole election thing might do donkey votes (numbering top to bottom) or reverse donkey votes (numbering bottom to top) or invalid ballots… but they are not large in number.

Get your papers, go to a cardboard booth, use the pencil there, fold the paper, then, as you walk out, place your vote/s in the correct boxes and say ‘Thanks’, ‘Bye’, or ‘See you next time’ to any officials who smile at you. Before you leave, don’t forget the democracy sausage. This is the perfect election day sequence for many Australians.

‘Democracy sausages’ are what we call sausages (and onion and tomato sauce and/or mustard) in bread that feature at fund-raising stalls at many polling booths. If we go to a polling booth and there are none, many of us get peeved. Some of us also get peeved if there are no vegetarian alternatives or if all the sausages contain pork.

For me, the single most fun thing about voting in Australia is the chat about democracy sausages. So many of us have strong opinions. It matters that maps locating the polling booths that have stalls that sell democracy sausages can usually be found on the web on election day.



About Gillian Polack

Gillian Polack is a historian as well as a fiction writer, which means that history is likely to creep into her blogposts. She is also Australian, a foodie, and has a strong love of things ranging from chocolate to folk dance. All her jokes are good jokes, even the ones that aren't funny at all.


Meanwhile in Australia — 5 Comments

    • Another reason for the Canberra building not to have chosen that acronym.

  1. I must say, your voting system sounds most excellent, especially the way it results in a huge turnout. Your preferential voting sounds like it’s similar to what we call ranked choice in the States. Ranked choice is used here in Oakland for local races, and in a few other states for other things, even Congress. But we don’t get it for everything.

    However, I have to note that you all have elected some people you’d have been better off without regardless of all that democracy. It’s a bit depressing.

    But oh, for a six-week campaign period. I don’t know if I can make it until November 2020.

    • The numbers are in concerning voters and it’s 96.8% of those eligible to vote. That and the 6 weeks makes such a big difference to everyday democracy. It means that everyone has views and that all our views count. It’s not the best system in the world, but it’s pretty cool.

    • If you’re interested in how we got our electoral system, there is a great book called “Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage” by Judith Brett that outlines the whole story in a clear and readable matter.